11 February 2019
Former politician and minister Peter Reith has an unusual gap inside his political career. Although history shows him being elected to Federal Parliament in 1982, when he won a by-election for the Liberal Party, he had to wait around two years before he actually took his seat.
Why is this gap unusual? Well, Reith had his by-election win in late 1982, when parliamentary sittings were finished for the year and wouldn’t resume until the next year. But before sittings could resume, there came a general election, and Reith lost his seat – before he’d even taken it. However, another general election came around the end of the following year, and Reith regained the seat that he lost earlier, after which he held it for many years.
I can’t think of any other examples of politicians winning seats and losing them before taking them, only to win again later. While I’ve heard of newly-elected politicians passing away before taking their seats, Reith’s record of winning and losing without sitting is rare.
When Reith was first elected to Parliament in late 1982, it was via a by-election for the Victorian seat of Flinders, to the south-east of Melbourne, following the resignation of Liberal stalwart Sir Phillip Lynch. A general election came months later, in early 1983, and Flinders was one of many seats falling to the Labor Party with the popular Bob Hawke as leading. Hawke called another election in late 1984, which he won, while Reith regained Flinders for the Liberals.
Going on to be a senior minister in the Howard Government, Reith held Flinders until retiring in 2001. His successor then was Greg Hunt, who’s still there today.
Hunt held Flinders by a fairly safe margin after the last Federal election, in July 2016. But the Liberals have become increasingly unpopular with voters since that election, and of late they’ve become especially unpopular in Victoria. Some observers believe that Hunt could lose his seat at the next election, even though Labor hasn’t held it since the period of Reith’s gap.
That said, Hunt will have something of an unusual challenge when the election comes. He faces not just the usual challenge from Labor, but an extra challenger in the form of Julia Banks, a disaffected Liberal MP from eastern Melbourne.
The motivation for Banks could only be described as revenge – no matter how much she denies it. She was elected to the seat of Chisholm at the last election, and was in fact the only Liberal candidate to win a seat from Labor then. With the Liberals only just winning the election, she might’ve been the person who saved the Liberals from defeat. But in the aftermath of events which prompted Malcolm Turnbull to resign as Liberal leader and Prime Minister last year, Banks initially announced that she wouldn’t recontest her seat. She later walked away from the Liberals to sit on the crossbench as an Independent. Now she’s decided to leave her seat and run against Hunt in his seat, because of a perception that Hunt played a key role in the demise of Turnbull, who was considered popular among Victorian voters in particular. Considering that Banks is leaving an urban seat to run in a semi-urban one, well away from her current base, her challenge to Hunt seems illogical. Certainly it makes no sense to me, and I can’t understand what she’s thinking in doing it.
If anything, Banks might only win over a proportion of voters peeved over what happened to Turnbull but unable to trust Labor. Even though this proportion might be large, she’ll probably be nothing more than a spoiler.
Hunt’s seat might’ve stayed in Liberal hands since Reith won it in 1984, following his loss in 1983. But it’s been in Labor’s hands a few times during its existence, and it would’ve been vulnerable for the Liberals at times. If it’s going to change hands at election time, it’s more likely to fall to Labor than to an Independent.
Of course, it’s not unprecedented for Independents to win seats which usually swing between the major parties. I recall the seat of Calare, in rural NSW, falling to Independent candidate Peter Andren in 1996, after previously swinging from one major party to another. Indeed Independent MP Andrew Wilkie currently holds a seat which previously swung from one major party to another. Although Independents can win seats which sometimes swing, I can’t see Banks winning Flinders under these circumstances.
Hunt faces a hard challenge without pressure from Banks. But as she’s coming from outside, and acting out of malice, she looks unlikely to beat him. Therefore she’s not in the money to chase, or hunt for, this seat – if you’ll pardon the puns here. Labor will more likely beat Hunt if he loses, with or without Banks.